History of the Jews

The history of the Jews

The Jews traced their origins back to the great cities of Mesopotamia,  specifically to Ur of the Chaldees, where their proto-ancestors, Abraham and Isaac lived, some time in the second millennium BC. However Abraham migrated to the land of the Canaanites, where God made a covenant with him and gave the land of Israel to him and his descendents.  However there is no sign in the archaeology of the presence of Abraham: Palestine at the time was simply a typical Bronze Age society.

However there was a great famine and they were driven south to take refuge in Egypt, where they flourished under a remarkable leader called Joseph who gained favour with the Pharaohs by prophesying seven good years followed by seven bad years. But then they fell into slavery from which they were delivered by a leader called Moses who punished the Egyptians with Ten Plagues  to escape from which the Egyptians allowed him to lead his people out of Egypt, escaping across the Red Sea and then wandering for many years in the Sinai desert until they eventually reached the ‘promised land’.


Moses is a crucial figure in the story of Judaism.  According to the Bible he lived for 120 years, but if he did all the various things attributed to him in the various different books in the Bible, he must have lived much longer than that; so there is much debate as to who is the pharaoh of the Exodus.  The expulsion of the Hyksos at the very beginning of the New Kingdom is sometimes suggested as a suitable parallel,  but this he is surely too early. Rameses II is sometimes suggested, but without much evidence. I rather feel we should place it at the end of the New Kingdom.

Somewhere around 1200 BC,  the Bronze Age kingdoms came to an end.  In Egypt this is marked by the attacks of the Sea Peoples, and at roughly the same time the Hittites, the Minoans and the Mycenaean empires all came to an end. And at a date traditionally given as 1184,  the Trojan War finally came to an end.  The ensuing period,  roughly from 1200 – 800 BC, is generally considered to be a ‘Dark age’.  During such Dark ages, the memories of an earlier golden age sometimes survive.  In Greece, some time around 800 – 700 BC,  these memories of an earlier age were brought together to form the two great heroic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Did something similar happen in Judaism?  Should we place Moses alongside Achilles and Odysseus as the last heroic figures of the Bronze Age dimly remembered through the Dark ages?

(Could a similar story be made out for King Arthur in the  sixth century  AD , the last Roman defender of Roman Britain whose short-lived success  was followed by the Anglo Saxon conquest, but whose name was resurrected to heroic effect half a millennium later?)

Moses having led the people of Israel to the ‘promised land’ found that the ‘promised land’ was already occupied by Canaanites and Philistines.  The next centuries were occupied by fighting as is recorded in the Book of Judges, though the judges were not judges in the modern sense but rather local chieftains fighting against the Canaanites.  It is a period of the greatest obscurity but we should remember that apart from the Egyptians who did maintain some sort of history through their Third Intermediate Period, the Jews are the only people who have any sort of account of what happened in this ‘dark age’ period.

This period comes to an end with the charismatic figure of King David, his successor and son Solomon, and his predecessor Saul.  David was apparently a shepherd boy who was a good singer who then became a military champion by killing Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, with a well aimed sling stone.  He and his successor Solomon established their capital at Jerusalem where they built a magnificent temple.

However archaeologists are not convinced: David is usually dated to around 1000 BC which is rather too early: it is in the middle of the dark age,  when no major towns were being built in the East Mediterranean. Indeed, only a small scatter of 10th century pottery has been found in Jerusalem. Thus the two leading scholars of the period,  Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have argued that either David and Solomon should be pushed down to the Eighth century, or they should be demoted to being minor tribal leaders at a time when Jerusalem was only a small village.

There is a big dispute between the ‘minimalists’ who want to downgrade both Solomon and the temple, and the ‘traditionalists’, who do not trust the archaeology. The minimalists suspect that the whole story of David and Solomon was somewhat exaggerated, and was essentially built up several centuries later when it was finally written down.

Israel and Judah split

But following David and Solomon, the kingdom split, between Israel to the north which is a larger and more fertile and generally richer area, but where they had a tendency to go off and worship other gods; and Judah, to the south, which was smaller and more impoverished and where therefore there was less temptation to go a-whoring after other gods – and where the future capital, Jerusalem, was situated.

The most impressive archaeological site of this period is Megiddo, in northern Israel. This is a pass through the mountains to the fertile valleys beyond, and it was the site of a major battle won by the Egyptians in c.1468 BC. It was later reoccupied by the Canaanites, and then became the site of a major Palace of the kingdom of Omri who had established his capital at Samaria nearby. Later Omri’s son Ahab lived there with his wife Jezebel, who was a Philistine princess. It was later captured by Tiglath Pilezer III in 732. Subsequently it appears in the book of Revelations as Armageddon.

The most powerful king at this time was probably Omri, the great King of Israel, who is barely mentioned in the Bible, except in hostile references, and whose daughter-in-law Jezebel became the typical wicked woman. Omri made Samaria his capital and rebuilt other great cities such as Megiddo, Hazor and Jezreel. However in around 722 BC Israel had its comeuppance when it was defeated by the Assyrians and its leaders were carried off to Assyria. However Judah continued to be semi-independent — though probably coming under the dominance of Egypt.


The fall of the kingdom of Israel left the smaller Kingdom of Judah as the centre of the Jewish religion. Here the crucial figure seems to be that of Josiah, a king who reigned for all of 18 years, (639 to 609 BC). He plays a fairly modest role in the Bible, but modern scholars suspect that he was one of the most important kings of all, for it was under him that Judaism began to acquire some of its most important characteristics, and that the Old Testament, as we know it, began to be put together. This was the time when Jerusalem reached its greatest extent and the temple was rebuilt.

During the rebuilding of the Temple, a document was discovered known as the Book of the Law which is sometimes thought to be an early version of the book of Deuteronomy. This had the fortunate advice that sacrifice should only be offered in one central place, and that place was obviously Jerusalem, so all the other shrines in Judah had to be closed, and everything was concentrated on the Temple.

Finkelstein and Silberman in their minimalist version of Jewish history, suspect that it was at the time of Josiah that the story of David and Solomon was concocted, or rather given greater prominence, and that two perhaps rather minor rulers were elevated into being great warriors and great kings who ruled over a United Monarchy and formed a convenient precedent for Josiah’s centralising tendencies. David and Solomon no doubt existed, but only as rulers of a small village, which was all that Jerusalem was at the time; but it was very convenient to turn them into very important kings. But there seems to be little doubt that Josiah marks a major turning point in the evolution of the Jewish religion, in that henceforward the Jews not only had one god, but also just one temple at Jerusalem. From now on, Judaism was a very centralised religion.

Following Josiah there is a sad story of weak and vacillating Kings until in 587 a great disaster occurred that marked the second great stage in the evolution of the Jewish religion, in that Judah itself was conquered by the Babylonians under their expansionist King, Nebuchadnezzar and the leading families were carried off to exile in Babylon. This could have meant the end of the Jewish religion in that their god had clearly failed to protect the Jews and his temple at Jerusalem which was pulled down and destroyed by the Babylonian conquerors. However, the exile had the reverse effect. They took it as evidence that they had fallen short and that they were being punished for their misdeeds. And during their exile they became even more extreme in their religion.

The exile only lasted for 60 years, for in 539 the Persians under their new King Cyrus the Great overthrew the Assyrians. Cyrus was a remarkable king who sought to consolidate his power by ruling lightly and he encouraged all the exiles whom the Assyrians had brought to Babylon as hostages to return home. This was a mixed blessing for the Jews. Some of them stayed in Babylon forming a strong Jewish outpost, but those that returned found that many of their compatriots were still there. Only the leading families had been taken into exile and those that remained did not always welcome the returning families.

Nevertheless the return was a turning point in Jewish history. The temple was rebuilt after considerable delays and was hence forth known as the Second Temple. The social structure also changed. The kings died out, the line of David became no more and instead the Jews were led by priests, and the high priest became the chief spokesman, though in practice power lay with the governor imposed by the Persians.

The Bible has several traditions

It was at this time too that the Old Testament received what became its canonical form. Two main traditions had come down reflecting alternative versions of Jewish history as seen in Judah (the Yahwist source, J), and in Israel (the Elohist version E) , but now these were put together by priestly editors to produce what 19th century German scholars called the P or Priestly version of the Old Testament. Although books continued to be added, henceforth most effort went into interpreting the Bible in the form of the Torah. This time of the 6th and 5th centuries saw the beginnings of historical writings in the Eastern Mediterranean, for final recension took place at the same time as Herodotus in Greece was also writing the better known stories of Cyrus the Great.

The problem now for the Jews lay in the all pervasive influence of the Hellenistic culture spreading outwards from Greece and infecting every culture with which it came into contact. This culture was based on the edifice of the new market economy which brought with it the new flatter, more open society that proved extremely attractive to those who came into contact with it. In the Levant, the turning point came with Alexander the Great who, following his defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Issus in 332 BC, became the ruler of the former Persian Empire including their province of Judah. Following Alexander’s death, his Empire split into three rival powers: Judah at first came within the Empire of the Ptolemies ruling from Egypt, but in around 200 BC they became part of the Seleucid Empire with its centre in Antioch in the north.

This was a time of considerable prosperity for the area, even if the politics was complicated. Hellenistic culture became dangerously attractive. In particular the Book of Maccabees reports that young men were attracted by the gymnasia and the whole concept of practising athletics naked. This as always greatly upset the traditional Jews (though where their objection to nakedness came from, I have never been able to make out: the other great religions to the East: the Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians do not have the same objection). However, in 166 they rose in revolt against the Seleucids, led by one Maccabeus and a new line of kings was established known as the Hasmoneans.

By now, external pressure came no longer from the Greeks but from the Romans and the Hasmoneans survived by becoming client kings of the Romans. First Antipater became a client king of Pompey, but the most successful, though the most ruthless of all, was his son,  Herod the Great who became the Client King under Augustus and who rebuilt the temple and indeed much of the rest of his kingdom, in what we would call the Classical style. And it was into this milieu, of Jewish traditionalists being faced with the being incorporated into the Roman Empire and Roman civilisation,   that Christ was born.


On to The Jews and Rome,


On to Christianity